The general election called on Sept. 8 by Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell is shaping up to be a very close fight between her Conservative Party and the opposition Liberals. In fact, one of Canada's leading pollsters, Angus Reid, predicts it's "very likely" that neither party will win a majority in the Oct. 25 vote, leading to a fragile minority or coalition government.
Since she took office on June 25, Campbell, 46, has boosted the fortunes of the Tories, who trailed the Liberals by more than 25% in the polls under her unpopular predecessor, Brian Mulroney. Canadians find the witty, irreverent Campbell, who even jokes about putting on weight in office, a refreshing contrast with the stuffy Mulroney. In fact, she is personally far more popular than Liberal leader Jean Chr tien, 59, a 30-year veteran of Parliament. But the Liberals still lead the Tories, 40% to 36%, in the most recent Gallup Canada poll.
The problem is that regardless how much Canadians like Campbell, they are fed up with the Tories' economic record and polices. Opposition to the newly minted North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Tories pushed through Parliament last June, is running 2 to 1. Canadians also want something done about an 11.6% unemployment rate. But Campbell's Finance Minister, Gilles Loiselle, recently warned that because of Canada's $25 billion deficit, "we cannot take money we haven't got to create jobs."
THE FAVORITE. In contrast, the Liberals' platform is far more in tune with the public mood. Chr tien, who thunders that the U.S. has been treating Canada as if it were "the 51st state," vows to renegotiate NAFTA on terms more favorable to Canadian industry. Chr tien promises a more activist economic policy, including a multibillion-dollar infrastructure program to create jobs. He also blasts the Bank of Canada for being obsessed with controlling inflation, which is running at 1.6%.
This platform, and a yearning for change after nine years of Conservative rule, make Chr tien the favorite for now. If that lead holds up, the Conservatives' drive to make the country more competitive internationally could be sharply undercut. Already, investors' concerns about an expansionary monetary policy, stepped-up spending, and other possible consequences of a Liberal victory have helped drive the Canadian dollar to a six-year low of 75.3 vs. the American greenback. While business leaders doubt that Chr tien would pull out of NAFTA, they believe a Liberal-led government would likely produce a lot more trade friction with the U.S.
STANDOFF? Analysts are also worried that a strong showing by the Bloc Qu b cois, which champions independence for the French-speaking province of Quebec, could make Canada an ungovernable mess. The Bloc, which is running candidates in a national election for the first time, could win at least half of Quebec's 75 parliamentary seats. Also, with the ultraconservative Reform Party of Canada likely to make gains in the west, neither of the main parties may be able to win a majority in the 295-seat Commons. Moreover, the Bloc's constant lobbying for a breakup of Canada "would make it very difficult for a government to rule," worries University of Ottawa political scientist John Trent.
For Campbell to pull a win out of this muddle, analysts say, she has to focus the campaign on personalities and dance lightly over the issues. That will not be easy given the anxiety about Canada's jobless recovery. But then again, a country that has become notorious for the blandness of its leaders may decide that the colorful Campbell is worth keeping around.